Growing Pains

Just past the Clorox giveaway and poll, you’ll find an actual post. 🙂  I promise.


Growing Pains

When I first become a parent, I didn’t expect that raising kids would be just as much about growing me as it was about growing these kids. By our tenth anniversary, deep in the midst of parenting 4 kids under 8,  I certainly felt the growing beginning.  But it turns out that parenting our older-adopted kids has stretched and grown me the most.  Continues to grow me. And, wow, that stretching can hurt.

Our girls who came home from Ethiopia in 2007 are now 14 and 16.  We also have three teen boys, ages 13, 13, and 17.  My world is awash in hormones. Recently I was talking with my wise momma (who raised 8 kids), frustrated over the attitudes that often simmer around here, and she said in all seriousness, “You can’t make a 13 year old happy, Mary.”

At the time, as a mom of three 13-year-olds,  I laughed.  If that’s true, no wonder we seem to have drama every day around here.  The swirling emotion baffles me many days.  I’ve always had a little Spock in me, always been vaguely uneasy in the world of emotion, have always leaned more on logic than feelings.  In childhood when a sibling of mine would be headed on an emotion-laden tangent, I remember watching wide-eyed, thinking, ‘Stop. This is so unnecessary.’

I still tend in that direction to a certain degree.   I want my kids happy– what mom doesn’t? I’ll listen and empathize when they share their grievances.  But my response to unhappy kids has always leaned more towards pep talks than emotional reflection.  My default mom-speech often contains variations of ‘work hard, do right, tell me what you’re thankful for, and trust God to fix what you can’t.’  I’m not trying to deny that negative feelings exist–well, ok, maybe I am a little.  Down deep I don’t trust them.  I like my rose-colored glasses.

My  ‘work hard, trust God, be thankful’ mantra worked reasonably well for kids who were born to us or who came to us as babies, and were relatively free of emotional baggage.  But parenting kids with a history of trauma just isn’t that simple.  And, oh, the pain we’ve all felt as I’ve slowly, slowly come to that realization.

I want adoptive parenting of older kids to be as straightforward as parenting the unwounded.   But here’s the truth, straight and simple.  Avoiding angst won’t make it go away.  (Heaven knows we’ve tried that route.) Punishing the misbehavior that springs from the angst isn’t a sure solution either– yup, even if you consequence consistently. (We’ve tried that too. For years.)

I’ve come to the realization, ever-so-unwillingly  (the Spock in me resisting all the way) that I’m being called to parent on a deeper level these days. I’ve GOT to muck around in the emotional mess with my kids.  I have to draw kids out, hear hard things, try to figure out motivation they haven’t even puzzled through, to help them get better at verbalizing the soul-snarls that steal their peace.

Sometimes an hour or two in the bedroom puzzling things over with an angry kid gets feelings unpacked a bit.  Other times all it does is show them I’m willing to go there with them, and makes it obvious that I care and want to help.  And maybe for that day, that’s enough.  I hope so.

I’ve come to another realization, one that fills me with regret on behalf of my older ones; it probably would have been better to have parented in this way the whole time. Yeah, what we did seems to have worked. By the grace of God, they’re great kids. But I could have done a much better job at raising them to be emotionally savvy, able to more adeptly sort through the thicket of emotion that clutters heads and hearts.

I’m realizing now, though, that I probably couldn’t have led them on that journey until I’d taken it myself. A decade ago I wasn’t far enough on my own emotional journey. But God knew where I needed to go, and how to get me there.  Steadily, faithfully, He’s been growing me through pain, and in the process making me more able to lead my loved ones through their own pain.

Part of that journey has been facing my own ineffectiveness, my own inability to turn a situation around.  I’m one of those efficient people, a logical problem-solver through and through, sure that if I just work hard enough that I can find a solution. But the challenges my kids face have left me spinning my wheels, utterly ineffective.   I can (and do) spend literally hours one day talking a kid through emotional land-mines, trying to puzzle out the ‘why’ of bad attitudes and choices, encouraging the child toward right, only to see the very same problems the very next day — sometimes even before breakfast. I’m like a bike with training wheels set too low, pedaling madly and not getting anywhere.

Seeing my child floundering in unhappiness makes me doubt my effectiveness.  Are we really getting anywhere?  Can a person be a good parent and have a miserable kid?  Some days the answer to both feels like ‘no’.

But that’s when it actually helps to step away from the emotion, to go back to my Spock side, to remember where my hope lies.  Not in my child.  Not in my own smarts. My hope is in the Lord.

No matter how it feels to me, no matter how it feels to my child, God is orchestrating our lives with his perfect wisdom.  I think that’s part of what my mom was trying to remind me.  I can’t focus on a person’s happiness or lack of it.  Yes, I need to not give up.  I need to keep doing good-mom things to the best of my ability.   Teach and train and consequence in a way that encourages obedience and respect, trusting that eventually, someday, by God’s perfect power, there will be fruit.

Any burdens I feel about the adequacy of my parenting need to be laid on God’s shoulders instead of carrying them on my own.   I am called to be faithful.  To go in the direction that He has led.  But always, always, ALWAYS the battle– and the outcome– belongs to the Lord.


  1. Mary,
    I read your blog often and have made some of your recipes. Yum! I’m getting ready to order fabric and will use the site that you suggest here. Fabric. com If you have any of the diapers left that you made could I buy one from you? I’d like to made some and it would be helpful to have one to go by. Thank you for any help you can give.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. I feel I’ve made similar mistakes with our daughter adopted from foster care. My usual MO of “good choices bring good consequences, bad choices bring sad consequences” doesn’t work the same way for her as it does for my other children, because she isn’t operating from the same stable, loving foundation that they are. (Of course, our love for her is there, but she isn’t able to access it in the same ways.) In retrospect, I should have extended the attachment phase of our relationship with her–more emotional reflecting and relationship-building and fewer consequences and expectations. Too kids don’t get perfect parents! 🙂

  3. This is beautiful. I have had similar experiences responding to students who have various personal crises: my response was always, ok, thanks for letting me know, I’ll keep it in mind and try to give you some leeway, but keep your eyes on the prize here. Then both of my parents were suddenly extremely sick and I realized that that was really an almost useless response. I had to have that journey — and the experience of true helplessness — before I could respond to students effectively. It’s not that I think I was bad before, but I think I am more mature now.

  4. Amen. Some things you just have to experience. Add into that brain damage of any sort, and it gets really, really difficult. (Not necessarily deficits in raw IQ: I mean autism, mental illness, FASD–“hidden disabilities” that have no external reminders for you that you are not dealing with the package you assume you are dealing with) In that case, you have to throw out everything you think you know, including things that you “know that you know that you know” and navigate uncharted waters that change, while maintaining more typical mindsets with others in the same family.
    Dorothy (mom of 11, many adopted, most with hidden disabilities) just blogged wonderfully on this, and I nodded the whole way. Oh, the personal example(s) I could give of the damage a mom can wreak by misunderstanding the reality and depth of what she is seeing…

  5. Should have added a link to Dorothy’s post mentioned above, in case anyone’s interested : )

    These moments are so good in helping us grow, and painful, too, as we realize things we missed.

    • Oh, that is such an excellent post, Marian. So good to know that we are not alone in these struggles. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Hugs! One big family mamma to another today…

  7. I’ve been reading your blog for some time and this is my favorite post. Thank you!

  8. Tiffany K says:

    So well put….my heart is right there with you. I am thankful that the Word tells us that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good; how blessed is the man who takes refuge in HIM” Psalm 34:8 even when we don’t “feel” like it. Thank you for allowing God to use you to encourage other women to trust Him and not ourselves.

  9. Not dealing with issues anywhere near as complex as the ones you have, just normal little kid stuff, but needed the reminder to not carry these problems around on my own shoulders. (and the reminder that I’m not the only Mom who feels overwhelmed and underprepared!) Thanks for pointing me back where I belong, Mary.

  10. That was just so beautiful – my boys came to us as babies and have been for the most part easy – just hitting the hormone stage -but my heart still wants to adopt and feels calls to adopt another older child – but I wonder and pray am I strong enough or a good enough parent to do this journey?? I do believe my fath will answer me but your post hit me on an emotional level for its honestly and feeling-

  11. Kristin says:

    Mary thank you for this post. Although I am not a parent of older adopted children, I am the parent of two girls,one with a chronic illness and one without (she just turned 13) We’ve had our share of ups and downs. I loved the quote from your wise momma friend that you can’t make a 13yr old happy, something I need to take to heart.

    Again, thank you for sharing. It really spoke to my heart today.

  12. Another mom of 11 here 🙂 – 6 adopted after most of my biological children were grown (but still home, thank God..I needed them!) I love what Marian (above) said about hidden disabilities. Sometimes I wonder if my unrealistic expectations stem from my guys being so beautiful and normal. Would I be more longsuffering and understanding if they had a big tumor on top of their heads as a reminder to me of their neediness?

    Love this post. Been there, felt that way. Especially the part about spending hours trying to walk our children through those (many, many) emotional land-mines…to no apparent avail.

    On the worst days I remind myself that this is a calling. With slow, almost imperceptible progress. He chose us for this job because of all the reasons that make it hard for us; our optimism, our can-do attitudes, our gutsiness. We would’ve never even attempted adopting large families if we hadn’t been at least a little confident in our ability to do the job. And now He’s showing us we can’t. Only He can. It’s actually a pretty good place to be 🙂

  13. Thank you! Having adopted an older child myself, as well as younger adopted child and children born to me, I can very much relate to your post. Recently I attended a conference offered by Dan Hughes who specializes I’m working with children who have disrupted or deregulated attachment histories. I learned so much about parenting through this conference, through his book (and others!) and through the adventure of parenting my children. My adopted children do provide me with extra challenges but it has been such a special and exciting journey as well. So thank you for sharing and for being honest.

  14. Rebecca says:

    Thank you so much!!! Your blog is such an inspiration to this homeschooling, adoptive momma. Your honesty is such a blessing!! Good to know we arent alone. NThanks.

  15. Our church is hosting free parenting classes, and what you write about is the gist of the information/ wisdom that is shared. “ScreamFree Parenting” by Hal Edward Runkel is a great book, “[it’s] not just about lowering your voice. It’s about learning to calm your emotional reactions and focus on your own behavior more than on your kids’ behavior… for their benefit.” –that’s from the back of the book. It’s easy to read, and not too long. Also, the book ‘Parenting from the Inside Out” by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel.

    I’m a “Spock,” especially when it comes to my fairly emotional 5 year old. But I realized my “zero tolerance” approach for her “shenanigans”/ emotional needs was actually really hurting our relationship, and her behavior hadn’t improved at all over the years.

    I’ve enjoyed and appreciated your blog for many years. Thanks for your honesty and willingness to share the your insights.

  16. Thank you for this post. I am a 50-year-old woman who was put into foster care at the age of 4 and adopted at 7. I can tell you that I WISH someone in my life had allowed me to share the hurts, anger, emotions that come along with being adopted as an older child. I honestly cannot ever remember anyone just LISTENING to me EVER as a child. I have had to work through (still am) some pretty deep emotions as an adult because of this. Thank you for recognizing that you needed to change some things within yourself in order to help your kids.

  17. Randi Sanders says:

    Hi Mary, great article. I have had several friends post it since you wrote it but am just now getting it read because I am up late waiting for my stomach to settle down. Oh, the joys of pregnancy. Anyway, I am so glad I read it . It amazes me in my own walk how much the Lord has grown me through raising children and still is each day. So thankful for his mercy, grace and compassion in spite of me.